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The Test of a Civilized Society

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The Quality That Makes Some Societies Rise — and Others (Like America) Collapse

A strange, sad, and beautiful thing happened today. I will struggle to express it well, so forgive me. Still, I want to share it with you.

I was in my perfect little world — the quiet, tiny street where I go to have coffee every day, and think my thoughts, in peace and solitude, just standing there, watching the tourists browse the shops, crowd the cafe, laughing as they stroll. A man walked by me, limping, disheveled. I’d seen him before, shuffling slowly by. A refugee of some kind. I saw him sit in a chair outside one of the restaurants, barely noticing, really, and went back, to thinking about the economy the world, big and abstract things.

I sipped my coffee slowly, and the minutes went by — who can say how many? Time slips by, when I’m alone, lost in thought. I looked up at again. Something was wrong. There was the same man, only now he had collapsed, one leg at a wrong angle, on the cobblestones, just in front of the barbershop, from which the barbers had run, and were trying to rouse him. I frowned. Was he drunk? High? It’s not unusual. But they looked concerned, in a different way. Alarmed. Maybe panicked. One of them picked up his phone.

Two paramedics on bicycles sped by me. They dashed to the fallen man. One ripped open the man’s shirt, and started pumping his chest. The other took out a portable defibrillator, and charged it. “Clear!” They shocked him. One looked at the other, and shook her head. No success. The first one started doing CPR again. The other, worry on her face, spoke urgently but calmly into her radio.

Now, my street has its regulars, and every street with its regulars has its pace, its rhythm, its movement. Ours is slow, langorous, unhurried. The air of a bygone world, if you like. There is the old Italian man, who works at the little perfumery. The barbers who wax beards, the girls at the stationary shop, the models at the photo studio. Like buoys in a suddenly tossed ocean, we glanced at each other, confused, worried, not knowing whether to be shocked. Death had come to our perfect and peaceful little street. The world we try so studiously to avoid — the one teeming with chaos, confusion, bent over in delusion and pain — had arrived at our door, and shattered it like glass. A stunned disbelief ripped through this human fabric.

An ambulance howled in. Two men raced out. One took out a toolkit of some kind, as the other gave the fallen man an IV. The doctor with the toolkit unpacked it furiously, snapped on a pair of gloves, and strapped the fallen man down. Two policemen ran down the street, and one held up a green sheet. One of the doctors raised his arm, and then seemed to cut into the fallen man. The other worked furiously to assist him. At a lightning pace, they seemed to be trying to — revive? Resuscitate? — somehow, to save him, a surgery performed right there, a little operating theater built in a flash, on the street. Two more policemen arrived just at this moment, one burly and tattooed, as if to stand watch over this struggle, of life against death, despair against hope, time against grace.

The stakes were as stark and as naked as they could ever be. This refugee, who limped by every day, was taking, it seemed, his last breaths, being cut open, and all this was something like a symphony, a perfect choreography of many, working in furious motion, with one single aim — to save this filthy, unkempt nobody’s life.

The thought crossed my mind that they might take him to the very same hospital where my partner is a doctor, and comes home, many nights, crying furiously in my arms, telling me about those she couldn’t save today. Undaunted old ladies and laughing old men who’d seen war and famine and ruin, and loved, anyways, somehow, impossibly, through it all.

And I found myself weeping, suddenly. Not just in shame, or in guilt, but also in rage. But who was I angry at? Myself? Time? Death, whose sickle gleamed in the sunlight? Snap! I’d looked away for a few minutes, and this man I never knew had fallen and died. Who was he? I wondered. What was his story? What was his name? Why had I never wondered before? Leaves who fall at autumn’s first touch. We do what we can, and it is never enough. It never will be. We will never know each other enough, or hold each other close enough, even if we walk by one another every single day. And so I just wept, in the end, for the tragedy of us.

A pretty girl walked by, her jaw dropping. A man strode by, in a suit, hurrying. He tapped the burly, tattooed policeman on the shoulder, and said, with a sneering whine, pointing to the barbershop, “I have an appointment! Let me through!!” The policeman’s face suddenly went red, and his eyes went dark. He roared back at the man, “An appointment? Can’t you see what’s happening here? Have some decency, mate!”

“Have some decency, mate!” And at that precise moment it occurred to me that there was something to be learned, or at least understood, in all this. A great parable was writing itself before me. One of civilization itself, of what it means to be civilized. Do you know the story of the stranger, the least of us all, the samaritan, the fall? Imagine the scene before me.

There are those who say it is immoral to ever need anyone’s help, and just as immoral to give it. To fall is to deserve to die, because one is weak, a burden, a liability. And then there are those who understand a truer truth. Three of them, to be precise. We must save every life, that we can. We should help every life realize itself, that we can. We must lift one another up as high as we can — beginning with the least among us. Another’s fall is our very own greatest test, in this way. These are not merely noble sentiments. They are very different ways to build a society — but one ends in collapse, and one ends in prosperity.

The first code — lifting others up is immoral, and only naked, aggressive self-interest is what is right — is what is believed in America. Hence, a scene like the above simply couldn’t play out. America has no healthcare system capable of it — but my point is not just that. The moral law of American life says it is immoral to lift anyone else up, or to be lifted. It is a shameful and humiliating thing to need or give help. In America, because we do not believe in really lifting others up, the streets are full of the fallen — and those who stride by them, or maybe on them, looking away — but what does that make us? I’ll come back to that.

This ancient city of poets and dreamers and revolutionaries, where I live now, this strange and improbable place, obeys the second kind of moral law. Or at least, at its best, it aspires to. It is a civilized place, still, because all those poets and dreamers and revolutionaries taught it how to struggle well. Their law says this. When people fall — at least sometimes, at least in part, no, rarely successfully — they mustn’t be neglected and abandoned. An intricate choreography whose purpose is to lift them up is to begin. The point of us is not just capitalism, if you want to put it crudely — it is to tend to, to cultivate, to elevate, life.

You can see it happen, just as I did today — the paramedics, the doctors, the cops, the urgent, furious street surgery, the jaws dropping on the tourists’ faces. Isn’t tending to life just what they were doing? It took, by my count, some ten people, at least, to do it — in a perfectly timed series of steps. All those people must be paid, educated, nurtured, trained, kept ready to move in a flash. And it is all that — this act of lifting one another up — which keeps my city a gentle, caring, and decent place. That is what the dreamers and poets and revolutionaries who made it taught us.

“Have some decency, mate! We are trying to save a life — that is the most urgent and important thing any of us on this street can do” — versus the American way: “let them wear bulletproof backpacks. Let them crowdfund insulin! Survival of the fittest, bro!!” Do you see how different these beliefs are — and how they build very different societies? Let me make it sharper.

In America, thanks to American economics, which is really just a recapitulation of capitalist immorality, we have come to believe that aiding others — tending to life, if you like — is always a “cost.” That is all it is, and all it ever can be — always, everywhere. So we go to church on Sunday, or the temple or the mosque, and we hear the story of the good Samaritan — and we would like to live in a place that operates by those rules, perhaps — but we do not. In the place that we live, because lifting anyone else up is only ever a cost, it cannot be allowed to happen. Costs, after all, are thing to be minimized. We do just the opposite — pull everyone we can down, in order to climb over them — and we have to: that is what capitalism makes of us. Exploiters who are, in turn, exploited. How clever it is — or is it the opposite? How foolish we are.

What has never been understood by America — and American economics in particular — is that lifting others up contains benefits that will always outweigh the costs, because they are benefits which cannot be had any other way. The test of another’s fall is what — and only what — builds, confirms, and renews our very own truest strength. Let me explain.

That moment, that precise instant, when someone falls before us, we are tested, too. What is tested in us? All the things that we call our moral character, our humanity, the essence of us. Do we have any empathy for them — or just a sense of triumph that we are still standing? Do we have the courage to help them — or just the gloating sense of satisfaction that we do not have to? Or can we face our very own mortality, fragility, and weakness, too? I could go on — but perhaps you see my point.

It’s a difficult thing to see — until you see it, and then it can never be unseen. The moment of another’s fall tests the highest and truest of our powers — our moral capacities. It tests the expansion, integration, and purpose of our selves, to act as truly transcendent things. It tests our highest forms of courage, strength, and will. It proves that we can exercise the most genuine forms of freedom, equality, and dignity. In that way, this moment, the moment of another’s fall, reveals the truth and beauty in us — whether there is much, any, little, or no true power, which is moral strength, in us at all.

We have failed that test in America, haven’t we? America is an ugly place today. It is full of violence and greed and ignorance and rage. It is a false place, too — full of ignorance, deceit, duplicity, and deliberate, calculated self-delusion, too. Beauty and truth — it couldn’t be further away. Do you think I exaggerate? Very well. What kind of nation puts babies on trial? Well, if you understand all the above, then the answer is this: the very same kind that makes people crowdfund healthcare. Because both sides of such a nation — its cruelty and its cowardice — are reflections of the same essential truth: it is a place whose moral character has turned to dust, whose moral strength became moral weakness.

But moral strength has turned to weakness dust because Amierca supposes, from the beginning, that the moment of anothers fall is not the instant when its moral muscles must be used. So they go unused — and is it any wonder that they have atrophied into flabbiness?

Only when someone falls before us can we ourselves can grow, mature, develop beyond egocentrism and self-absorption and self-gratification. That is when our very own transcendent qualities, like courage and empathy, when our very own most challenging forms of strength and power, when our own truest kinds of freedom and dignity, are really revealed, expressed, tested. Until those moments, they are just ideals — not realities. Lifting others up, carrying their burden, is the weight which makes us morally strong, my friends. And Americans have grown weak because they have forgotten this lesson. Weak enough to be overcome by fools and thugs and bullies.

We achieve grace in just this way — and only in this way, my friends. By being tested in the moment of another’s fall. Then the truth of us is revealed. Are we cowards? Selfish and small? Spiteful and false? Lazy and indolent when it comes to what matters — but busy when it comes to what never has or will? Ah, but how can such people ever build a society worth living in? Such people are weak in the truest way — no matter how much they imagine themselves to be strong. If you think that sounds a little like America today, perhaps we understand each other a little.

Or does something different happen — do we have, at the moment of the fall, when a life stumbles, right there, right before us, the courage and strength, the freedom and dignity, to lift it up? Can we make that choice — or are we prisoners, in a way, of our own cowardice? But then we are powerless, too. Won’t a society which is free in the first kind of way, the powerful way, be the one which endures, prospers, and grows — and the other one, the cowardly, powerless kind, the one which is not free at all, really, be the one that only collapses? Isn’t all that obvious? Why, then, do Americans believe the very opposite — that abusing and neglecting and abandoning one another could ever have led them anywhere but backwards and down, made them littler and weaker? Why haven’t they learned the lesson yet?

After all, the tale is as old as time. All the prophets taught it to us, and then the philosophers taught it all over again. The stranger, who was the least of us, the samaritan — the test. It is also Kant’s Golden Rule. Over and over again, human beings have rediscovered that their truest and highest powers come from their humanity — and their truest and lowest weakness, their powerlessness, comes from their inhumanity. And yet there is one land, one place, seems not to be able to understand any of this, over and over, again, too. It believes in precisely the opposite — that inhumanity will lead upward, and humanity will lead downward. That place is America, of course, and because it has never understood that civilization is not just some kind of childish moral fable — but the fundamental and inviolable building block of a society which can grow— it is collapsing instead.

Hence, the three principles which I saw unfold before me so elegantly, so simply, so beautifully today — we must save every life we can, we should allow every life to realize itself as fully as it can, and we will only ever grow as high as we lift one another up (and therefore, also fall as far as we pull one another down) are the three ideas which make up a civilized mind, person, a citizen, too. And I think that far too few of us really understand all that — or allow ourselves to truly reckon with it.

The doctors wheeled the man into the ambulance. The paramedics lifted him into it. He took ragged, shallow breaths. We — all still stunned — breathed finally in a kind of shocked relief. How many oceans had he crossed?

We are all crossing an ocean too, my friends. The ocean of our own ignorance, stupidity, folly. And the question is whether, like America, we drown in it. Whether, in that crossing, we try to pull one another down — or we pull one another up, precisely when the waters, deep and dark, churn and tug at us. After all, none of us can cross this ocean ourselves. Which way do you suppose we grow genuinely stronger? Which way — pulling others up, or abandoning them — makes our moral muscles a stronger every time we do it? And what does it take for a society to really endure? The cultivation of more moral strength, character, and wisdom, through the struggle to tend to life, every day — or simpler being bigger fools wielding bigger guns?

Do you see how simple it is when I put that way? Let me put it another way. Are we just going to be instruments of domination and exploitation — or win our freedom? But how can we ever win our own moral liberation if we are only concerned with ourselves? That, my friends, is the story of American collapse, in one sentence. We fail the test of lifting up the fallen, over and over again, every day. And the failure of that test also reveals, every day, what weak and false people we have let ourselves become. But weak and false people are also easily overcome by tyrants, by bullies, by strutting thugs, aren’t they?

These great lessons echo through the streets of my city of poets and dreamers and revolutionaries. Dickens, Marx, Bentham, Freud. Who lived here? Who didn’t? I hear them laugh sometimes, I think, as I watch the world go by. The dead are still here, and they are teaching us, every day, what it means to struggle to live, through all the pain, with grace.

 October 2018

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